By Terry Daley
ROME (Reuters) - Four-times World Cup champions Italy have booked a place at the 2014 finals in Brazil with two games to spare but even their smooth qualification could not gloss over the patchy displays throughout the team's campaign.
The Azzurri traditionally struggle in qualification but Tuesday's 2-1 victory over the Czech Republic allowed them to clinch their place in Brazil with ease as they moved seven points ahead of second-placed Bulgaria in Group B.
They remain unbeaten in their first eight games, with six wins and two draws, but it has been far from a flawless display by Cesare Prandelli's side.
Leading striker Mario Balotelli had already been sent off once in qualifying and the AC Milan player was fortunate not to be dismissed again on Tuesday after a bad foul on Tomas Sivok or for continuously reacting to provocative tackles from defenders.
Italy could consider themselves lucky to qualify so early with neither of the past week's performances looking like those of potential World Cup winners.
They had world-class saves from captain Gianluigi Buffon to thank for their nervy 1-0 win against Bulgaria, and almost blew their chances of wrapping things up on Tuesday with a combination of poor finishing and shaky defending.
Balotelli missed a series of easy chances to equalize after his team went a goal down and if the Czechs had doubled their lead in first-half stoppage time, as they nearly did, an uninspiring Italy would have struggled to come back.
Balotelli, however, was convinced that Italy would be counted among the favorites in Brazil next year.
"We're among the top sides there, even if there will be other strong teams. They're the ones who should be fearing us," he said after Tuesday's victory.
The unconvincing display notwithstanding, Prandelli's record in competitive matches as Italy manager looks impressive. He unexpectedly took Italy to the final of Euro 2012 with what many considered to be a modest collection of players.
Prandelli currently favors a midfield that contains Andrea Pirlo, Daniele de Rossi and Thiago Motta, while Italy have one of the world's finest keepers in Buffon.
Then there is Balotelli who, since his move to Milan and despite his antics, is maturing into a game-changing center forward.
They can also count on Pablo Osvaldo and Alberto Gilardino for dependable, if unspectacular, attacking back up.
Despite Pirlo being one of the world's best deep-lying playmakers, Italy still lack creativity in the final third, and there is no classic "trequartista" in the mould of Roberto Baggio, Gianfranco Zola or Alessandro Del Piero.
Napoli's Lorenzo Insigne is promising but has struggled to impose himself so far.
Prandelli seems to have bad luck with defenders. After losing both first-choice fullbacks Ignazio Abate and Luca Antonelli during the win over Bulgaria, he saw late call-up Manuel Pasqual leave the field on a stretcher bleeding from the head after an ugly clash with Czech striker Libor Kozak.
Italy's displays are not yet at the level of the Germans or the Dutch, who dominated their groups, but the team's recent 2-1 friendly defeat to Argentina and the penalty shootout loss against Spain in the Confederations Cup underlined a dogged spirit that helped them to triumph in Germany in 2006.
"This team is special because it had to start from nothing and now we're among those teams that can win," said Roma midfielder De Rossi, who was part of that World Cup-winning team.
The Azzurri have been in something of a transition ever since then, with many in Italy unconvinced by the team and in particular the young players coming through.
"We played on equal terms with Brazil and Argentina and we got to the final against Spain in the Euros. It's all going to depend on if we can create a similar sort of group as we did in 2006," said De Rossi.
"This Italy side knows how to play and never gives up."
(The story corrects para 10 to make clear Italy reached final of Euro 2012)
(Reporting by Terry Daley, editing by Amlan Chakraborty)